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Janos Starker, 88; one of most celebrated cellists

NEW YORK — Janos Starker, one of the 20th century’s most renowned cellists, whose restrained onstage elegance was amply matched by the cyclone of Scotch, cigarettes, and opinion that animated his offstage life, died Sunday at his home in Bloomington, Ind. He was 88.

Indiana University, where he was a distinguished professor of music, announced his death.

A Hungarian-born child prodigy who survived internment by the Nazis during World War II, Mr. Starker appeared, in the decades after the war, on the world’s most prestigious recital stages and as a soloist with the world’s leading orchestras. He was part of a vaunted triumvirate with Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-76) and Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), collectively the most celebrated cellists of the day.

He was also widely known through his more than 150 recordings, including one of Bach’s six suites for solo cello for which he won a Grammy Award in 1998.

Mr. Starker played several magnificent cellos during his career — including the ‘‘Lord Aylesford’’ Stradivarius of 1696, a 1707 Guarnerius and a 1705 instrument by the great Venetian maker Matteo Goffriller — but nonetheless managed to resist the seductions of the instrument to which cellists can fall prey.

The chief hallmark of his playing was a conspicuous lack of schmaltz. Effusive sentiment is an inherent risk of the cello, with its thundering sonorities and timbre so like the human voice. He also shunned the dramatic head tossing and body swaying to which many cellists incline.

‘‘I'm not an actor,’’ Mr. Starker said in a 1996 interview with the Internet Cello Society, an online fraternity of cellists and devotees. He added, with characteristic candor, ‘‘I don’t want to be one of those musicians who appears to be making love to himself onstage.’’

Unlike many acclaimed string players, Mr. Starker used a lean, judicious vibrato — the minute, rapid variations in pitch by the left hand that can enrich a note’s sound but can also border on the histrionic. Excessive vibrato, he liked to say, was like ‘‘a woman smearing her whole face with lipstick.’’

While the musical style that resulted was too dispassionate for some critics’ taste, others praised Mr. Starker’s faultless technique; purity of tone; clean, polished phrasing; and acute concern with the composer’s intent. His style was especially well suited to the Bach suites, canonical texts for the instrument, which he recorded on several occasions.

Although Mr. Starker eschewed romantic mannerisms, he did not stint Romantic works: He gave many well-received performances of the Dvorak concerto, the lush, haunting B minor staple of every concert cellist’s arsenal.

Nor did he neglect 20th-century music: He was considered one of the foremost interpreters of his countryman Zoltan Kodaly’s sonata for solo cello, composed in 1915 and so technically demanding that it is sometimes described as having been written by a fiend.

In these works, too, his restrained approach differed greatly from the ripe romanticism of Rostropovich and Piatigorsky.

''What I'd like to see is a little more humility and dignity displayed toward our art, and less self-aggrandizement,’’ Mr. Starker said of Rostropovich in a 1980 interview with People magazine. ‘‘Slava is more popular, but I'm the greater cellist.’’

Opinion was but one area in which Mr. Starker allowed himself joyful immoderation; cigarettes and alcohol were others. He adored Scotch and by his own account consumed it with abandon. For much of his life he smoked 60 cigarettes a day, although in old age he reduced the number to 25.

Unlike many world-renowned musicians, Mr. Starker made teaching a major facet. In 1958 he joined the faculty of what is now the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, where he taught until shortly before his death.

His presence turned Bloomington into a mecca for cellists; among his students were the prominent soloists Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, Gary Hoffman, and Maria Kliegel.

''I personally cannot perform without teaching, and I cannot teach without performing,’’ Mr. Starker told The Chicago Tribune in 1993. ‘‘When you have to explain what you are doing, you discover what you are really doing.’’

Janos Starker was born in Budapest on July 5, 1924, the son of Sandor and Margit Starker; his father was a tailor. Before he turned 6, Janos was given a cello; by the time he was 8 he was giving lessons to younger children. He entered the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, making his recital debut at 11; at 14 he played the Dvorak concerto with a symphony orchestra on a few hours’ notice.

As a young man, Mr. Starker was the principal cellist of the Budapest Opera and the Budapest Philharmonic.

The Starkers were Jews. Near the end of World War II, Mr. Starker and his parents were dispatched to an internment camp on an island in the Danube outside Budapest. All three survived the war, though his two older brothers, Tibor and Ede, disappeared; Mr. Starker said that he believed they had been shot by the Nazis.

After the war, Mr. Starker worked as a sulfur miner before making his way to Paris. There, in 1947, he recorded the Kodaly sonata; that recording won the Grand Prix du Disque, France’s most prestigious award for recorded music.

In 1948, Mr. Starker was brought to the United States as principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony.

He served in the same role for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York and the Chicago Symphony.